Translators are social animals, because to translate
means to communicate. Translators are also cultural animals if, as we
said, translation is first of all the translation of one culture into
another. In this respect, whoever belongs to a community - meant as
social group in the broadest sense of the term - and must deal with
people who do not belong to that community is obliged to translate
in order to communicate from within to the outside of the social
group. In every community, communication is based on an extremely
high percentage of elements that are taken for granted as assimilated
around which the communication takes place. If a message started
from a compendium of all the assimilated data, it would be
However, since in every community the obvious,
assimilated data may vary, those who live within it and operate
outside that community must carry out translations.
A good example may be Sydney Lumet's film A
Stranger Among Us1.
A policewoman has to investigate within a Hassidic Jewish community
in New York and, in order to do it, she must pretend to be a member
of that community. The whole film is centered around the translation
problems between the culture of the Hassidic community and the
broader standard culture of New York.
If we imagine the cultural universe as a giant
organism composed of cells - according to the biological metaphor
which Lotman took from Vernadskij - translation is an activity that
takes place at membrane level: the translation between the
individual and the outside takes place within the membranes of the
smallest cells (individuals), as we said in unit 35. The translation
between the inside and the outside of the communities takes place
within the membranes of sets of cells (community, families, social
groups, clubs, associations, etc.).
As we saw in unit 17, Lotman dealt with the concept
of "limit" or "border", which represents the separation element
between one's own and the other's and creates the chance to
communicate through the activity of translation.
But is the translator in the center of society (being
an operator of the communication) or is he on its sidelines (being
relegated to the "membrane")?
Translation could be a solitary activity if, in most
cases, the translator must have at her disposal remote-communication
tools such as telephone, fax and email. The use of these instruments
is spreading, the potentialities of computer-mediated communications
are increasing and, simultaneously, communication costs are being
reduced; all this makes the physical distance between the translator
and the customer a less and less important factor.
We can also see the problem from another point of
view: if it's true that the translator can work from whatever
country she likes, it is also true that she manages to find work
with difficulty and, consequently, has difficulty in making her
name circulate in the society, unless she has created a series of
social relationships 2
aimed at allowing her to become a well-known professional.
The translator is an oxymoron: she is in the center of
the society and, simultaneously, on its sidelines. In the center,
because of everything we have said about her fundamental function in
the communication system; on the sidelines because, by definition,
she works at the border between two cultures/languages. In the
center, because a very high portion of the press is made of
translations; on the sidelines because, in many cases, it is denied
or ignored that they are translations or, when it is not denied,
the translator's role (and name) is hardly ever brought to light.
Some translators complain about this, while it would
be more useful to understand what the reasons are behind it.
Evidently, a culture of translation is missing and, for many
generations, there were no institutions teaching translation. There
are still people convinced that there is no need for a culture of
translation, that an engineering text should be translated by an
engineer, that a literary text should be translated by a writer, and
Fortunately, in many parts of the world the
University Institutes for translators and interpreters have the same
structure. Such institutes - in line with the more general university
structure - are organized into a common triennium, at the end of
which students obtain a diploma in linguistic mediation, and a
further biennium subdivided into three different courses
(technical-scientific translation, literary translation, conference
interpreting), at the end of which students obtain a master's degree.
Translators can be subdivided in various ways. There
are translators employed in companies where they do clerical work and
translate or write documents in various languages.
There are also freelance translators who work inside
and outside the publishing industry. Such distinction follows
pragmatic criteria rather than ontological ones.
Translators who do not work for publishers - and who
are often called "technical" translators, even if they do not only
deal with technical texts - are considered alike any other freelancer.
Translators who work for publishers - and who are
often called "literary" translators even if they deal with
non-fiction or scientific texts - usually provide a collaboration
whose consistency is quite variable. From the tax viewpoint, they are
equated to writers.
In both fields, but especially outside the publishing
industry, there are a number of small and medium companies that
gather the translators' labor force in various ways:
- translators' cooperatives and associations, which represent
the fairest form of organization: the resources (premises,
equipment, capability) are in common, but profits are distributed
in proportion to availability and capability;
- big translation companies (like Logos, that gives space to
this course), where we find both external translators - who
provide their collaboration - and internal translators who are
usually responsible for a linguistic combination or a sector;
- translation agencies. There are various kinds, but they are
all based on the same concept; the commercial mediator (between
customer and translator) gets a brokerage commission, whereas the
translator earns a part (often paltry) of the original
There are trading associations and awards for translators, but the
bulk of the activity takes place outside these circuits. Translators
themselves find it difficult to identify with their group and,
despite their shared job titles, there are remarkable differences,
also at the practical level, between a literary translator who works
for the publishing industry and a translator of manuals; therefore,
the concept of "defense of the profession" becomes quite abstract.
Now that the institutional basis for translators'
university education has been laid and the disciplinary
self-consciousness of translation science is increasing
exponentially, we can expect nothing less than a better tomorrow.
LUMET S. A Stranger Among Us. Con M. Griffith, E. Thal. Usa, 1992.
ROBINSON D. Becoming a Translator. An Accelerated Course. London, Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0-415-14861-8.